Archbishop John Nienstedt will return to full duties in the Catholic Church after the Ramsey County attorney’s office found insufficient evidence to support what it called an “unlikely” allegation that he touched a boy’s buttocks after a confirmation ceremony in 2009.
The office began reviewing reports and evidence provided by police in late December and on Tuesday announced that the investigation didn’t support the filing of criminal charges.
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Richard Dusterhoft, the office’s criminal division director, said in a memo that the scenario described in the allegation “seems unlikely.” The allegation accused the archbishop of using a public moment after the confirmation to “sexually touch a random boy openly in front of another clergy member, a deacon, and numerous other confirmands while the confirmands’ family members were preparing to document the moment’’ with photos, Dusterhoft wrote.
“This case was reviewed by an assistant county attorney with many years of experience prosecuting child sex abuse cases,” Dusterhoft’s memo said. “It is that attorney’s experienced and considered opinion that based upon the evidence as presented by police this case could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and should not be charged.”
The Ramsey County attorney’s office said Tuesday’s decision doesn’t affect its other investigations into allegations of clergy abuse, which “are complex and can often take more time.”
St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla said his agency continues to investigate eight cases involving the local church. “At this point, we’re not going to comment on the ongoing investigations,” Padilla said.
Jim Accurso, spokesman for the archdiocese, said police toured the chancery Tuesday.
“We fully cooperated with police, and this is an indication of the improved ongoing relationship,” Accurso said.
Ministry duties to resume
The archdiocese said Tuesday that Nienstedt will now “resume all of his public ministry duties.”
The archbishop was in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday for meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, but in a statement released by the chancery, he said, “I am thankful to the St. Paul Police for their thorough investigation, as well as to the Ramsey County attorney’s office for their professional work regarding this matter. I look forward to returning to public ministry during this Lenten season, especially during Holy Week and the great feast of Easter.”
Accurso said he was not aware of any upcoming public appearances by Nienstedt.
“He has traditionally said mass on weekends at parishes across the archdiocese,’’ Accurso said. “I don’t know when that will resume.’’
13 people in photo interviewed
Dusterhoft wrote that no one witnessed the alleged touching at the Cathedral of St. Paul on May 5, 2009.
According to Dusterhoft’s memo: Police interviewed the boy, who said he had been touched on Dec. 18 and 19. He told police that Nienstedt had one hand on his crosier, a ceremonial staff, and another on the boy’s shoulder, then moved it down his back and buttocks.
“The male said he thought it was ‘creepy’ but did not feel violated,” the memo said. “The male said that he was concerned about the attention the incident was receiving and did not believe the incident was significant.”
A photo of the day shows a group of 13 people. Nienstedt is standing behind the boy, one step up, with his left hand on the crosier and his right hand on the boy’s left shoulder. Police interviewed everyone in the photo and no one reported touching someone as a joke, seeing touching between people or seeing anyone startled.
“The male did not describe any squeezing or rubbing associated with the touch,” Dusterhoft wrote. “Resting a hand on the buttocks, in the context of a group gathering to line up for photos, could be done in a thoughtless, unintentional or accidental manner, without the requisite sexual or aggressive intent required to be proven under the law.”
Police interviewed Nienstedt on Dec. 24. He didn’t have a specific memory of the day but said that he normally poses with one hand on his crosier and the other on his vestment. Police interviewed him again Feb. 5 because the photo conflicted with that pose.
“He was surprised to see his hand on the male’s shoulder in the photograph,” Dusterhoft’s memo said of Nienstedt.
The allegations were brought to police Dec. 16 following a number of lawsuits alleging clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a possible coverup by church leaders. The boy’s mother told a priest about the alleged touching, and he reported it to the archdiocese and the police.
Nienstedt halted his public ministry during the investigation, calling the allegation “absolutely and entirely false.”
County attorney spokesman Dennis Gerhardstein said there is a separate, ongoing investigation into what the reporting priest knew, when he knew it and how long it took him to alert authorities. Priests are required by law to report allegations of abuse within 24 hours.
In a written statement, Frank Meuers of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the allegation against Nienstedt seemed “pretty implausible.” He added that the group is “grateful that police apparently did investigate this thoroughly.”
A number of U.S. bishops have been accused of abusing minors in the past two decades. About a half-dozen cases were determined to be unfounded, said the Rev. Tom Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer. About a dozen were found to have involved abuse, he said.
Staff writer Jean Hopfensperger contributed to this report.